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Author Topic: Narrativism: What's beyond the sillyness  (Read 3203 times)
Valamir
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« on: July 17, 2001, 12:29:00 PM »

I've been poking around and adding to my collection of games owned and played those purported to be narrativist, and noticed a reoccuring theme...narrativist games seem to have a tendency towards promoting "sillyness" in game play.

Soap is clearly intended to be silly.  Extreme Vengeance is a "simulation" of american action movies which by definition is silly.  Elfs of course is silly as is the good Baron's game.  Dying Earth also plays rather silly.  Even when playing Alyria, a game with a fairly dark and twisted setting, there were obvious signs of escalating sillyness.  Sorceror, of course, is not silly (though I suppose it could be if desired), but then Sorceror is a game fairly strongly rooted in gamist/simulationist mechanical sensibilities.

Has anyone else noticed that when you take away the structure of alot of g/s mechanics and grant power to players beyond that of traditional games (i.e. demphasising GM authority) that the first thing players do is get silly?

Is this just a natural "kid in a candy store" kind of effect until the novelty wears off or is it perhaps an artifact of not having sufficient structure to the game mechanics to keep things within bounds?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: July 17, 2001, 12:46:00 PM »

Hey there,

I'll add Zero, Hero Wars, and Prince Valiant to the "not silly" category, but overall, I do agree with you.

It's also clear that extreme Director stance mechanics are often used for humor, whether for spoof or plain comedic effects. Any number of people have been asking me, ever since Elfs came out, whether a game with heavy Director stance elements can be about serious stuff.

I think the answer is Yes. But so far, it's Terra Incognita.

Let's get to it, everyone, before Robin Laws gets there first.

Best,
Ron
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jburneko
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« Reply #2 on: July 17, 2001, 01:34:00 PM »

Hello,

If you ask me I think the problem lies with the players and not so much the system.  Take Story Engine and it's story points system.  In Story Engine you can spend a story point to take on a Director Stance and make something external to your character happen.

My resident d20 Fanatic (who is of the firm belief that without hard coded rules for everything players will just walk all over the game with no rhyme or reason and he will do anything to prove this to me when we're not playing a d20 game) agreed to try out Story Engine.  In his usual 'well there are no hard rules so this means I can do anything I want with little regard for anyone else' manner he proceeded to keep trying to use story points to do things like:

Make two unrelated characters lesbian lovers.
Have a side character confess to the crimes commited.
Have four of the characters show up at his place for an orgy.

And so on....  Now, in some games all this might be very serious and actually add to the drama but he was doing it because he knew that it went against the grain of everything the game was about.

When I said no, he'd get all huffy and say, 'Show me in the rules where it says I can't.  You told me I could spend a point to make something happen.  The rules say I can spend a point and make this happen.'  Then I'd point out that the rules say the GM has veto power, and then he'd say things like, 'Oh so it just comes down to my word against yours.  How is that fair?  Tell me how that's fair?  It's not a REAL rule if the GM can just ignore it.'  And so on...

The point is I think it would be hard to create a 'director stance mechanic' that was specifically serious.  I think it simply takes appropriate player mindset.

Jesse
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John Wick
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« Reply #3 on: July 17, 2001, 01:35:00 PM »

Quote

Let's get to it, everyone, before Robin Laws gets there first.


Too late.
(I don't know what it is, but I'm sure he's already half done with it by now.) :wink:
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Carpe Deum,
John
joshua neff
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« Reply #4 on: July 17, 2001, 01:43:00 PM »

& The Whispering Vault, which is about as unfunny as you can get. I don't know what the system for Little Fears is, but it definitely doesn't look all that funny. Nor does Eight (whenever the hell that gets done, hint hint nag nag).
Then again, it seems quite a few RPGs had a problem with taking themselves seriously, when RPGs first began. For every serious D&D adventure or article in Dragon, there was some goofy Monty Haul piece. Tunnels & Trolls is rife with humor (some of it funny, some of it, like that "Yassa Massa" spell, not so much). Maybe it's just the growing pains--you try something new, & god forbid you be accused of pretension, so you treat it humorously.
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--josh

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes
Mytholder
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« Reply #5 on: July 17, 2001, 02:53:00 PM »

In a regular rpg, players get silly. They crack jokes and take the piss out of the NPCs. Their characters tend to be fairly eccentric and wierd. The GM keeps them in line, supplies a lot of the mood and gravitas. Good, serious players can help, but only the GM can really impose order on a game. In a narrativist game, the GM doesn't have the same authority and can't impose order, only guide.
Basically, the players are drunk with power. :smile:
I think it's a temporary thing. I've been playing a freeform narrativist game for a few weeks. Totally rulesfree and GM-free...it's group storytelling. I tell a story for a few minutes, then someone else takes over from a different story angle. The first two or three sessions were totally silly, but the last one had at least some sanity to it. It's just a question of getting used to the style.

Plus, sillyness is fun.
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gentrification
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« Reply #6 on: July 18, 2001, 05:58:00 AM »

Maybe it's that sillyness is safe, as well.

When you're doing something like playing in Director stance, and you're actually creating, and not just responding, you're sort of... putting something of yourself out there on the gaming table. If you're trying to create serious drama -- horror, romance, tragedy, whatever, then it's likely that you're dredging up some personal stuff, the stuff that's serious to you. Exposing that for other people in an intimate context can be scary. Ask the kids who have to get up in front of their high-school writing class and read their latest story out loud.

Cloaking your contribution in sillyness is a measure of protection. It allows you to participate, but still communicate that hey, it's not like I have a personal stake in this, huh-huh, you know? For people who are probably already rather shy in social situations, it helps to maintain a comfort zone.

-Mike
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Michael Gentry
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: July 18, 2001, 07:51:00 AM »

I'm beginning to think that we are addressing too many topics at once.

I think that Silly, Light, Funny, Satiric, and Parodic are very different things. Elfs is satiric and I hope funny as well, but I'd be willing to fight anyone who seriously suggested that it was silly. (Yes, fight. Knuckles, baseball bats, that sort of thing.)

So perhaps the basic observation of the thread should be reviewed or revised a little. Especially since there DO exist a round half-dozen RPGs that are solidly Narrativist and not any of the above.

As I said before, though, I agree that a LOT of the Narrativist games DO tend toward some combination of the above terms. However, I think there's an explanation that no one's offered yet.

It is this: being funny (and accurately satiric or parodic) is actually damned hard, in any medium. Being silly is relatively easy - this is where we get our Python jokes during play and so on. Once we distinguish between the two, then the successful RPG design that permits FUNNY without immediately descending into SILLY would be quite the achievement.

I think that's what a lot of these systems are doing. I think they are not minor achievements at all, but rather unrecognized triumphs. NO ONE has ever presented RPGs that are funny in actual play without becoming silly, and then unfortunately stupid until now. It's worth giving credit for.

Best,
Ron
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Mytholder
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« Reply #8 on: July 18, 2001, 08:24:00 AM »

Quote

On 2001-07-18 09:58, gentrification wrote:
Cloaking your contribution in sillyness is a measure of protection. It allows you to participate, but still communicate that hey, it's not like I have a personal stake in this, huh-huh, you know? For people who are probably already rather shy in social situations, it helps to maintain a comfort zone.

But GMs do it all the time....how? Is it just that we're used to the GM creating some ghastly, twisted horror story or emotional plot, and feel odd if it's another player doing it? Does preparation time have something to do with it?

Actually...most "brainstorming" sessions I've been involved in descend into stupidity eventually...
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gentrification
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« Reply #9 on: July 18, 2001, 10:15:00 AM »

Ron:
Point well taken about funny vs. silly. I think my point would be specifically addressed to the issue of sillyness, which is presumably not a deliberate design goal in most games (as opposed to funnyness, which could be). Why would a shared-control narrative game devolve into sillyness? Maybe lots of reasons. Emotional safety is the one that occurred to me.

Gareth:
Maybe because the traditional role of the GM is still not really as "creator" but rather as "arbiter" of something that's already been created? I don't feel like I'm taking any big risks when I present a romantic sub-plot in Horror on the Orient Express, for example, because I still don't have any emotional stake in it. That's just the way it was written, the thinking goes, don't look at me, I'm just running the thing. Even if I wrote the adventure myself, it seems like there's sort of a... distance between the emotional investment, which would be strongest at the time that I wrote it, and actually presenting it to the players - especially since I'm "traditionally" expected to be objective as a GM. I don't know - this is all pretty subjective, how I think I would feel in such a situation.

In a game where everyone is employing directorial or authorial control, the relationship between your own creative self and what gets put out there during the game is more immediate. When you make your contribution to shape the plot, you're saying, right then, this is how I think this story should be, which says something implicitly about you right then, right there at the table. Maybe that's kind of weird for some.

Hmm. With all the talk about "traditional" and "objectivity," I suppose I'm coming close to saying that this safety zone issue is kind of a remnant of simulationism floating around in people's narrativist games. Which is as much to say that maybe the sillyness comes from people wanting to play narrativist but not feeling fully comfortable with it? Maybe. I couldn't prove it or anything; it's just a thought.

-M.
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Michael Gentry
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #10 on: July 18, 2001, 12:43:00 PM »

Most of the Narrativist-oriented mechanics I'm seeing in games falls into one of several camps.

The first is the pulp-action camp.  Silly = insane stunts (Extreme Vengeance, octaNe).  
The second is funny situation camp.  Silly = comedic value (Elfs, Ninja Burger).
The third is the straight parody camp.  Silly = poking fun at the genre (Squeam 3 and Elfs, although to a lesser extent*).

These seem to be pretty popular fields that haven't really been explored before.  However, I don't see anything in a game like Puppetland, Story Engine, Whispering Vault or Sorcerer that compels me to act funny or do things that are funny in and of themselves.  I don't see the silly Narrativist game phenomena as a problem...

* Elfs is brilliant...the writing is satirical, the game can be played straight and without much irony or winking, and it's STILL funny because of those insane Director-stance mechanics.

BTW, speaking of funny/silly games -- Ninja Burger is frighteningly good and silly.  I bought the combo-pack and it was worth every koku, er, dime I spent.
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jared a. sorensen / www.memento-mori.com
GreatWolf
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« Reply #11 on: July 18, 2001, 03:29:00 PM »

Valamir saith:

Even when playing Alyria, a game with a fairly dark and twisted setting, there were obvious signs of escalating sillyness.

That was just the caffeine speaking, I think.  Well, that and six tired players, of which three had been exhibiting all day long.  That being said...email me with suggestions as to how to keep the silliness down.

Josh saith:

I don't know what the system for Little Fears is, but it definitely doesn't look all that funny.

The system is a "fade-into-the-background" kind of thing.  The goal (to my analysis) is to avoid interfering with character immersion.  (Not just Actor, but Immersion, as Raven discussed on another thread.)

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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: July 19, 2001, 05:21:00 AM »

Mike G,

"I think my point would be specifically addressed to the issue of sillyness, which is presumably not a deliberate design goal in most games (as opposed to funnyness, which could be). Why would a shared-control narrative game devolve into sillyness? Maybe lots of reasons. Emotional safety is the one that occurred to me."

I think emotional safety is an excellent suggestion, because silliness all by itself is clearly a defense mechanism of some kind.

I think this idea applies to all of role-playing, though, and not especially specifically to Narrativism. Whenever things get tense or uncomfortable or boring, either in-game events or at-the-table socializing, people can kick in those defenses.

However, is it MORE likely in Narrativist play? Maybe, but I think we're not looking widely enough. My suggestion is that it's more likely if a player-behavior is being judged by his peers on some shared basis. That would certainly apply both to Narrativist and Gamist play ... and then I think about the Monte Haul stuff (Gamist big-time), and the Tunnels & Trolls stuff (Gamist, big-time), and go, h'm.

Best,
Ron

P.S. The edit was to put the word "in" in where it belonged. Typed too fast the first time around.

[ This Message was edited by: Ron Edwards on 2001-07-19 14:29 ]
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